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Volume 23 No. 29
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Four weeks in, NFL viewership was down 10%, but TV execs still see a powerful performance

The Oct. 4 “Sunday Night Football” game between the Eagles and 49ers saw a 37% drop in viewership from last year’s Week 4 game.
Photo: getty images

The NFL’s TV numbers through the first quarter of the season are not a pretty sight, with overall viewership down by 10% compared to last year.

NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” the league’s marquee prime-time TV property, is down 14%. So, too, is CBS’s NFL schedule.

TV executives last week, however, expressed almost no angst about that viewer drop. In fact, they say the NFL’s performance this fall has demonstrated just how important the league is to the overall TV business.

“This is not really a year for anybody to get too hung up on ratings,” said Burke Magnus, executive vice president of programming and scheduling at ESPN, which was the only TV network to post an increase for its NFL games. ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” is up 1% through Week 4.

“NFL content is still incredibly powerful,” Magnus continued. “These are massive audiences. We take a lot of solace in the fact that NFL games are the most powerful content on television and people continue to show up in huge numbers. We’re not going to get all twisted up about ratings.”

This view mirrors the position held by the NFL’s top media executive, Brian Rolapp, who recently sent a memo to teams telling them not to be overly concerned about ratings.

Take Oct. 4, for example. NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” game between the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers averaged 15.1 million viewers, down 37% from last year’s Week 4 “SNF” matchup (Dallas Cowboys vs. New Orleans Saints). One reason for such a steep drop: the game competed with Game 3 of the NBA Finals on ABC, which posted 5.9 million viewers — the lowest NBA Finals viewership on record.

It’s clear that the NFL is hurting its competition more than its competition is hurting it. And that’s a main reason why TV executives are sounding so optimistic. The Stanley Cup is over. The NBA playoffs were winding down last week. Most of the major golf and tennis tournaments are done for the year.

Even the presidential election will, hopefully, be over in three weeks.

After the glut of sports in September and October, the NFL is about to have less competition than usual — especially considering the delays in starting the next NBA and NHL regular seasons.

“With every passing week, we’re getting closer to a normal competitive environment for the NFL,” said Mike Mulvihill, executive vice president and head of strategy and analytics at Fox Sports.

Fox Sports, which has posted a 2% drop for its Sunday afternoon games, is heartened by the number of people watching televised sports. Since July 23, when MLB returned to play, total live sports viewing through the NFL’s Week 4 was up 7% over a year ago, Mulvihill said.

“There isn’t a sports problem at play here; it’s not a rejection of sports,” he said. “It’s not a reaction to any broader social elements that have been introduced into sports content. The viewing of sports is healthy. But there now is a glut and an oversupply of what we would all think of as marquee events. And it’s just causing each individual property to get a lesser share.”

As an example, Mulvihill pointed to the most-watched shows on any given week over the past month. The slots are filled with live sports and news, showing how important those programming genres are to the television business. Take that Eagles-49ers “SNF” game from Oct. 4. Even though viewership dropped 37%, it still was one of the 15 most-watched shows on all of TV since the pandemic started back in March (see chart).

“It is just amazing when you watch the 50 most-watched shows of a week; it just leaves no doubt that our television business is a news and live sports business,” Mulvihill said.

Even without the problems caused by the pandemic, the NFL was prepared for a rough season ratings-wise. In his memo, Rolapp wrote that NFL viewership has declined in each of the past six presidential elections. “In the most recent 2016 presidential election, NFL regular season viewership was down 14% for the nine weeks prior to the election vs flat for the eight weeks after the election.”

Cable news networks have posted huge viewership gains, largely due to the presidential campaigns. That segment is up around 37% right now.

“This year, it’s different because not only do you have the intensity of the election, but news viewership has been way up since March,” Mulvihill said. “You’re just layering the pandemic story on top of interest in the election. The intensity of the news cycle is the greatest it’s ever been.”